How Much Consumer Centricity Is Too Much?

"Why would anyone have mentioned Star Wars," I asked (probably using what she likes to refer to as my 'duh voice').

We’re going a little off-piste here. This topic was not in my editorial calendar, and it breaks away a bit from e-comm. I didn’t even start this exploration, @LorenzoCarreri did with this LinkedIn post (complete with clickbait picture of Kevin Hart) from a little over a week ago:

Kevin Hart spends hundreds of hours (for months) at small comedy clubs in the middle of nowhere in the US to understand what jokes got the most laughs.

In 1975 Robert De Niro purchased a taxi driver license and worked as a taxi driver for months (he even recorded his passengers’ conversations) in order to understand what being a taxi driver meant before his acting role in the movie Taxi Driver.

Disney hires hundreds of researchers to walk around their parks and ask for feedback to small samples of visitors.

Old school copywriters who sold hundreds of millions of $ of goods attended seminars and silently sat behind a group of people to learn about their clients’ customer avatar.

So, why wouldn’t eCommerce companies use customer research to develop empathy for their customers?

What followed was a spirited discussion among folks — some of whom I know and have a high degree of respect for — as well as your correspondent. A quick perusal of the comments section will show the degree of thought and expertise at work here. It was a good exchange.

Later that morning I was sharing this with my wife and she asked if anyone had mentioned Star Wars. “Why would anyone have mentioned Star Wars,” I asked (probably using what she likes to refer to as my ‘duh voice’).

She schooled me. She rattled off the names Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley, each breakout actors who were cast in the Star Wars epics. She told me about the personal abuse they received from “hardcore fans” of the series whose views of those characters didn’t exactly match the actors’ gender and/or ethnicities. She sent me links to articles about the extraordinary online trolling and bullying that ensued. Objectively speaking the attacks were sexist and racist. From the Hollywood Reporter article about Ms. Tran:

(Director) Rian Johnson’s vision of a galaxy far, far away divided obsessive fans, and Tran, as the franchise’s most prominent newcomer and first woman of color in a lead role, bore the brunt of the haters’ ire. (John Boyega and Daisy Ridley faced similar harassment when they were introduced in Episode VII.) They polluted her feed with racist and sexist insults, she deleted all her posts, and by the time The Rise of Skywalker premiered in December 2019, the girl who happy-cried her way down her first red carpet two years earlier had been replaced by a woman who stared down the cameras at the El Capitan Theatre, lips sealed in a defiant pout.

There are plenty of other accounts of what happens when deeply felt “fan love” turns ugly, Star Wars being only among the most recent. The producers of the film made casting decisions — ostensibly — based on their view of what these characters should be. Maybe the producers saw some commercial value in selecting one actor over another, or maybe they intended to throw a curve ball. One thing they didn’t do was test these decisions with a focus group.

iModel T’s And the Acceptance Barrier

Here’s the question: How much consumer centricity is too much? When should the brand defy the wishes of its most ardent fans — those with LTV in the upper echelons — to pursue an agenda the brand believes in? One of Steve Jobs’ more famous quotes on innovation wove in another quote attributed to Henry Ford that addressed both questions simultaneously:

“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

In framing this issue in the context of design thinking, Forbes magazine said it well: “Customers can easily describe a problem they’re having — in this case, wanting to get somewhere faster — but [customers don’t necessarily define] the best solution.”

At the risk of throwing a lit match into a pool of gasoline, it could be that what separates Kevin Hart from someone like the brilliant Dave Chappelle or the late, great Bill Hicks is that, perhaps, Chappelle and Hicks rely less on seeing what jokes will land, and focus more on landing the jokes people need to hear. It’s not that they don’t do their homework, but they rely less on consensus and more on punching a hole through the acceptance barrier. Can a company not also do the same? Steve Jobs thought so. So did Henry Ford. As long as we’re here we can also throw in Reed Hastings and, for sure, Mellody Hobson.

Which brings us to Fan Fiction.

Giving Harry Styles New Balance

As always we start with Wikipedia (itself the standard-bearer of qualified consensus) to define Fan Fiction:

“Fan Fiction is fictional writing written in an amateur capacity as fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction. The author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator(s) as a basis for their writing.”

Depending on how you see things, fan fiction (or, as the kids say, ‘fanfic’) is either blatant theft or a useful extension of intellectual property. Creators of foundational ideas — be they works of art or new designs or previously unrealized mathematical formulae — rarely if ever consult the audience before unveiling their breakthroughs. Should a company regard the work of a “brand ambassador” who sets to work extending the basis of an idea to suit themselves as a liability or asset? How far is too far?

In my research for this piece I ran across this gem from none other than The Harvard Crimson:

‘The problem with [the major motion picture] “After” lies in its origins. It is based on a series of books by Anna Todd that were first published online as Harry Styles fanfiction — a genre often written by a fan of a particular movie or television series, in which the already existing characters are included in the author’s plot. It is essentially writing with only 50 percent of the work.’

Yes. Bitchy. And missing the point. Somehow a piece of Harry Styles fan fiction was deemed to be commercially viable enough to warrant the funding of a major motion picture. The first words on the movie poster for “After” say it all: “Based on the Best-Selling Worldwide Phenomenon”. Because the movie isn’t based on an original script, or a published book, or a historical event. It’s based on consumer preference as expressed through web traffic to a specific fanfic posting. And this isn’t the only example: “Fifty Shades of Gray” (that book your mother denies having read) started out as fanfic from the “Twilight” film series.

A further extension of fandom is the “unwanted adoption” of organized groups of a brand, like when white supremacists and neo Nazi’s made New Balance shoes their footwear of choice. What does the brand do? As Michael Jordan once was alleged to have said in response to why he wasn’t more vocal in support of more liberal political stances, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Don’t Ask Me

Clearly there is no “correct” stance on this matter. The voice of the consumer and the vision of the creator need not be mutually exclusive, but finding the right balance is as elusive as the perfect weather forecast. My rule of thumb is to support the visionary voice and tweak based on inputs: Plan the flight, fly the plan and adjust as necessary.

But that’s just my approach. What about you?